Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, third from right, awards CAPI USA in his St. Paul office on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

A longtime St. Paul nonprofit that assists immigrants and refugees has been honored by Minnesota’s secretary of state for its work in civic engagement. 

CAPI USA, which helps newly arrived immigrants access essential resources and social services, received the National Association of Secretaries of State Medallion Award on Tuesday for its efforts to register voters over the past few years. 

“We are very excited and honored to be recognized for our voter engagement work, which we’ve been doing for a decade,” Mary Niedermeyer, the interim CEO of CAPI, told Sahan Journal. 

CAPI, which has offices in Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis, serves about 12,000 people across the Twin Cities. About two-thirds are from Asian communities, while 20 percent are Black, 8 percent are Middle Eastern, and 7 percent are Latino.

The organization’s most recent voter registration drive, held last year, registered about 900 people, most of them Asian. This was mainly done through door-knocking, phone banking, and partnerships with other organizations such as Vietnamese Social Services and the Karen Organization of Minnesota, Niedermeyer said. 

For next year’s presidential election, CAPI aims to register 1,250 people to vote, said Victor Peevxwm Yang, its community engagement assistant manager. 

Secretary of State Steve Simon thanked CAPI for its work in a roundtable discussion with six staffers from the organization in his St. Paul office. 

At the beginning of the conversation, Simon displayed a document that his office made in the 1920s giving election-related information to the public in Norwegian. Simon said his office has been providing public election material in languages other than English since the 1890s. His office currently provides election materials in 12 languages. 

Simon said groups like CAPI are carrying on the same tradition to the immigrant communities of today. 

“Once in a while, I will get pushback on that, as I’m sure you do in similar circumstances,” Simon said at the roundtable. 

The pushback usually comes from people who say voters should be fluent in English. Simon emphasized that preferring to read documents in a native language is not a measure of English fluency, and noted that his mother, an immigrant from Austria, was fluent in English but preferred to read any instruction manual or government document in her native German language. 

“That’s how she was wired, and that’s how most people are wired,” he said. 

Simon then led a discussion about how CAPI is preparing for next year’s presidential election. 

During the discussion, Yang noted how Ramsey County is now required by law to provide election materials in the Hmong language. This is from a provision in the federal Voting Rights Act that’s a result of the most recent Census, where more than 5 percent of the county’s population identified Hmong as their primary language. Yang said CAPI plans to strengthen its relationship with Ramsey County officials to make sure Hmong language services are available to voters in future elections. 

But providing written materials in peoples’ native languages isn’t enough on its own, Niedermeyer said. Sometimes Hmong speakers aren’t comfortable reading material in Hmong, which only became a written language in the 1970s. And ballot initiatives that people vote on are always worded awkwardly and confusing even for fluent English speakers, she added. 

“We can give generalized voter information,” Niedermeyer said. “But sometimes when it comes down to specifically what’s on the ballot, it can be challenging to overcome that.”

Yang added that people often don’t know who to vote for in down-ballot local races, and sometimes that can discourage them from voting altogether.

Simon said that when he hears feedback like this, his rule of thumb is to tell voters that there is no harm in skipping voting on the races they aren’t familiar with.

“I say, ‘Vote for the three you know and leave the rest blank,’” he said.” I’d much rather have someone go in and vote for the things they have an opinion on and leave the rest blank and not beat themselves up or feel guilty.”

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...